In recent years, research has shown that the biggest epidemic facing us today is obesity, caused by excessive consumption of sugar and corn syrup (as sweetener and taste enhancer) mainly in processed food, resulting in illnesses such as diabetes and many other modern ailments. This use of corn syrup followed a deliberate economic decision being made in the eighties to produce vast quantities of corn in America to feed the population. The initial tremendous success in providing cheap tasty meals brought huge pro fits to the multinational companies owning these farms but also a huge increase in obesity and related diseases. A possible solution to these modern‐day problems was artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, but although FDA‐approved, artificial sweeteners remain under suspicion by many consumers.
Consumers also are now becoming concerned at the health risks of sugar and artificial sweeteners and resorting to teas, and other natural products. Once a booming sector, consumption of sodas and soft drinks has fallen about 7 percent in the United States recently and could shrink further.
Now the race is on to provide sweetness and taste without the accompanying side effects. Soft‐drink makers are increasingly desperate for a miracle ingredient. Five years ago, Stevia, a low calorie sweetener made from the leaves of the Paraguayan plant, was heralded as an ideal natural sweetener but some customers have complained of Stevia’s bitter aftertaste. It has therefore had limited success in the marketplace.
Now, some experts think the Chinese green fruit, Luohanguo or Monk Fruit, could provide the ingredient soft drink makers have sought for decades: a natural sweetener with no calories. One gram of the fruit extract replaces eight teaspoons of sugar, allowing consumers to significantly reduce their calorie intake, according to Laura Jones, a global food science analyst at Mintel, a food and drink research firm. The plant is one of the gourd family related to cucumbers and melons, whose fruit ripens to the size of an apple, and grows like a vine (from a distance it looks like a kiwi‐fruit vine).
Recently, Zevia, a premium‐brand company based in Culver City, California, introduced its no‐ calorie sodas sweetened with a blend of monk fruit and stevia. “If you do detect any kind of taste, it is a fruity taste, which goes well with soda,” said Linda Gilbert, CEO of EcoFocus Worldwide, a consumer research company focusing on green and sustainable trends. Also, a popular brand of Greek yogurt now sweetened by Luohanguo was launched recently in the US and some schools in Omaha have replaced sugar in their flavoured milk with the fruit extract.
However, so far, limited demand and expensive production processes (extracting the active ingredient from the fruit is a long and difficult process that further increases costs) have kept the expensive fruit in the background. It is grown only in some regions of China. A method for producing the Luohanguo fruit as a sweetener was patented in 1995 by Procter and Gamble who managed to develop a process to eliminate the undesired flavours, but it wasn’t until BioVittoria, a New Zealand company, shepherded the fruit through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval process that it became available for mass consumption.
The FDA approved monk fruit (Luohanguo) for consumption in 2010 but it is not yet approved by European regulators. However, the fruit has no reported adverse side effects. Supplies have also steadied since BioVittoria began producing Luohanguo fruit extract. The company deals with local Chinese farmers to produce 60 percent of China’s yield of 400 million monk fruits, distributed exclusively by global sugar and sweetener giant Tate and Lyle. Meanwhile, Chinese law prevents Monk fruit seeds and genetic material from leaving the country, according to BioVittoria, con fining production to China.
In 2013 senior NZ officials visited BioVittoria’s production base in Guilin, including David Cunliffe, now Labour opposition leader. He was accompanied by NZ’s ambassador, Tony Browne and they met with Dr Garth Smith, a director and one of the co‐founders of BioGFS (the subsidiary company in China). Mr Cunliffe spoke highly of BioVittoria’s efforts to build a Monk fruit industry and said that the company sets an excellent example to other New Zealand firms that are willing to do business in China. BioVittoria, is now the fruit’s top exporter. The plant employs 28 workers at the moment. About US$3,500,000 was invested in its establishment in 2004. The company also acquired a total of 7.29 hectares of land in 2013 to build more factories and cool stores in Guilin City.
Luohanguo is bred for maximum sweetness and is hand‐pollinated. The company mechanically extracts the active ingredients.
Used since the Tang Dynasty by monks in Guilin, knowledge of Luohanguo only spread to the rest of China in the 13th Century. It has been consumed in southern China for centuries, especially by the Cantonese, but in recent years it has also become popular across the country, where it is marketed in dried form and used to flavour soups and tea, and as a remedy for sore throats.
Most of the fruit comes from the mountain valleys near Guilin, Guangxi province, and in Guangdong province and to a lesser extent in Guizhou, Hunan, Jiangxi and Hainan island, where the steepness of the mountains provide shade and the mists protect them from the harshness of the sun, yet the temperature is warm, providing ideal growing conditions.
The residents in Yongfu and Lingui counties are said to live long lives, many up to 100 years. They attribute this to luohanguo as well as to the pristine environment.
Due to its limited natural growing area it was not introduced into Chinese Traditional Medicine until the 20th Century since when it is used as the main ingredient in ‘cooling’ drinks (that is to counteract fever and disorders described as ‘warm’ or ‘hot’ in nature).
The fruit is round and green, but turns brown when dried. The active ingredients [mogrosides] are approximately 1% of the fleshy part of the fruit, and they are extracted as a white powder, which is nearly 250 times sweeter than sugar [one pure component is 400 times sweeter!]. It is not eaten fresh as the raw fruit has unattractive flavours and often ferments, so it is usually dried. But drying also causes the formation of bitter stringent flavours and this limits the use of the dried fruit to the preparation of teas, soups, etc. to which sugar or honey is normally added! And so the fresh fruit is picked before ripening and allowed to complete its ripening during storage‐processing begins with the just‐ripe fruit. It then becomes the basis of a concentrated fruit juice or puree to be used in food manufacturing.
Numerous sugar‐substitutes derived from luohanguo, by similar processes that isolate the sweet compounds, are now available for manufacturing and for kitchen use.
It only remains for this sugar‐substitute to become known world‐wide, in order to provide a potential ‘cure’ for the plague of obesity and associated diseases with which Western society is afflicted.
– Teri France
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